Why are the Russians as they are? What historical experiences have shaped this nation and its people? That is my first subject – necessarily superficial and anecdotal.
The most recent experience – the fall of the Soviet Union, the convulsions of the 90ies surrounding the change from a communistsociety, a centrally planned system to a market economy, is very much alive in the minds of most Russians. “The greatest tragedy of the 20th century” said Vladimir Putin of the fall of the USSR – the one who brought it about, Boris Yeltsin, was also the one who named Putin president. That shows how attitudes change – and how old ones tend to come back. How did it happen – an empire was lost, a socialsystem collapsed, all in the course of a few years and – unique in history – without any bloodshed? Did Gorbachev and Yeltsin plan their actions – or did they at all understand what was happening and what they were doing? How do the Russians now look upon the 90ies? That is my second subject.
And now – is it as the French cynics say “plus ca change plus c´est la meme chose”- do we now see a returnto some of the soviet behaviour, do the “siloviki”, the people with background and thinking from the KGB, now dominate the Kremlin, has the old nomenklatura, the Soviet elite, been succeeded by a kleptocracy, bureaucrats who use their positions to rob the country and think of nothing else? And can a system with one autocrat at the top deciding everything really be stable. Or can we hope thatRussia will live up to its European role, will leave its autocratic tradition, introduce the pluralism, democracy, law-governed society that so many Russians dreamed of in 1989 – become as they said “ a normal country”. That is my third subject.
2. The origins of Russia is an issue of political significance even today. One theory has it that the first ruling princes arrived from Scandinavia in theninth century by invitation from the warring Slavic tribes and thus founded the Kievan state. This was a good foundation myth for defenders of autocracy – because without these Varangian chiefs, it is said, the Russians would have been incapable of governance. In fact archeologists have found that an advanced culture of Slavic tribes in southern Russia had established a civilisation dating backmuch earlier. That one was destroyed by the Scandinavian princes, Rurik and others – a theory that you never find in our own history books.
((The same political significance has the myth of Novgorod versus Muscovy. The former was a flourishing civilization connected with the Hanseatic league and a symbol of democratic traditions. It was conquered by the Moscow tsar Ivan III in the late 15th centuryand lost its freedom. Thus was destroyed the bridge to western Europe and its civilization. For other historians Moscow´s conquest of the city was necessary to create a unitary state and protect it from squabbling and corrupt boyars. ))
A few hundred years later historical events took place of great importance for Russia´s future – the invasion of the Mongol hordes. For 250 years Russia wasruled by the Mongol Khans. The national myth is that these nomads were primitive and backward, plunging civilized Russia into its “Dark age”. In fact they were far from backward, had sophisticated systems of administration and taxation – proven by the Tatar origin of many Russian words e.g. money (djengi), customs (tamozhna) and treasury (kazna). Still it did separate Russia from the West putting it...